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  • Michael Owen

The horse that tames the dragon? EU Struggles For a United Policy On China

“Cooperation is better than confrontation, and we have more to gain from opening than from being closed.” Such statements are routine from Emmanuel Macron, who praised multilateralism in the heart of the US Congress in front of Donald Trump. It is no surprise that he would uphold such sentiments in his own capital. This statement was not made after talks with Trump however, but after a meeting with Trump’s international rival, Xi Jinping. President Xi ended a tour of Italy, Monaco and France with a joint declaration alongside Macron to “promote the protection of human rights and fundamental liberties, in conformity with the United Nations charter.”

The summit was part of an intensification of EU-China diplomacy, prompting introspection within the EU on its policy towards China. Visiting Italy, Xi oversaw its Prime Minister’s public support for the Belt and Road Initiative of economic development across central Asia. The meeting with Macron will by followed by a summit in Brussels with EU leaders, then one between China and the CEEC + 1 group the day after. The meetings are a means of fostering greater co-operation between the world’s second and third largest economies, who’s combined trade amounts to over €575 billion. After they were announced, the EU Commission published a report outlining 10 areas ripe for cooperation. However, these were accompanied by a reference to China as a “strategic rival,” the most antagonistic language it has ever used in reference to China.

EU-China relations are undergoing important changes. The USA’s recent turn from multilateralism has hurt and shocked both powers. On the face of it, their similar responses suggest the same outlook: both condemned US tariffs and imposed counter-tariffs; both continue to uphold international agreements, namely the Iran Deal and Paris Agreement. The EU is now China’s first trade partner and China the EU’s second. However, this is countered by several areas of growing discord. The EU continues to condemn China’s human rights record and aggressions in the South China Sea. Condemnation of imprisonment of non-Han citizens in China’s Xinjiang Province remains muted however, for now. The Huawei issue has caused controversy in Europe, where China hawks protest relying on the Chinese government-funded firm’s new 5G infrastructure. Parello-Plesner, Senior Advisor on Asia-Europe relations at Rasmussen Global, has warned “the EU should not repeat the same strategic mistake with China and telecommunication” as it has with Russia and gas.

China’s growing influence in Europe has caused divisions in a Union desperate for political solidarity. A dispute has erupted between EU competition enforcer, Margrethe Vestager and German Economy Minister, Peter Altmaier. Vestager continues to believe European competition will prevail against Chinese industrial weight. Altmaier meanwhile, argues that competition laws must be reformed if the EU firms are to challenge the TNCs of China (and those of the US and Japan). A deeper divide is between EU members more cautious on China and those who welcome Chinese economic investment. Italy is unlikely to be the only EU member to support the BRI economic corridor. The early results of Chinese economic influence were seen in 2017, when a year after a Chinese firm invested heavily in Greece’s main port, the EU member voted against a routine EU Parliament motion to protest Chinese human rights violations. The Huawei issue is exacerbating this divide: while Portugal embraced Huawei’s new infrastructure, Poland arrested a Huawei employee on espionage charges and Denmark deselected Huawei from a contract.

Not only are China’s ends in its dealings with EU member states worrying; so too are its methods. Like Trump, Xi has shown a preference for bilateral deals with individual states over talks with the whole block. After his one-to-one meetings with the leaders of Italy, Monaco and France, his deputy, Premier Li, will go to the Brussels summit. In this way China ensures its dominance in bilateral talks.

This is where Macron’s meeting differed: rather than meet Xi one-to-one, Macron invited EU heavy-weights Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, presenting a stronger position in talks. Whilst this was no negotiation, it was symbolic. If EU members replicate this united position when dealing with China, they may see more beneficial outcomes. Macron’s Chinese transcription – Makelong – means “the horse that tames the dragon.” If the EU is to tame to Chinese dragon, its members must unite on their China policy.

IMAGE: Flickr

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